“What do you do?” This is a classic question upon meeting someone new, a question meant to strike up additional conversation and to help new acquaintances get to know each other. But as a disabled person, it’s a question I’ve come to dread.
While I do work very part-time as a writer and an educator, a good portion of what I “do” is navigate life as a chronically ill person. This includes visiting doctors, doing physical therapy exercises, and spending a lot of time in bed. Yet in a culture so focused on productivity and how we “contribute” to society, it can be hard to explain to people that for many disabled individuals what we do has a far different focus than for others.
When I first became chronically ill, I struggled immensely with the idea that I wasn’t being productive enough. Truth be told, it’s something I still struggle with at times.
I was raised to believe that a good portion of why we are here on earth has to do with how we can contribute and be of service to others. Much of my identity was based around what I did far more than who I intrinsically was — I taught, performed, and parented.
So when I suddenly became ill — and the things I used to do were no longer doable — I found myself facing an internal crisis and truly questioning who I was without those things. How was I contributing to society if I was primarily stuck in bed or at home?
By its very definition, productivity is focused on doing — on what we can create or produce — and it’s often linked to things like our careers or the amount of housework we do. I often hear friends complain about how they weren’t productive because they had a “lazy” day and didn’t accomplish all the things on their to-do list.
We seem to think that things like rest, vacation, or fun must be earned by doing all the things first, instead of them being an integral part of our human existence. “Toxic productivity,” or feeling the need to ‘do’ at the cost of all else, is something that has plagued us for a very long time, coming even more to light during the pandemic.
I was very much stuck in the trap of toxic productivity for much of my adult life. Because of this, my entire idea of self was tied up in this go-go-go, do-do-do nature. Who was I, then, when I no longer was able to ‘go’ and ‘do’ like I did before?
Not long after becoming disabled I entered into therapy. I kept telling my therapist that I felt like I needed to work on my identity; I didn’t know who I was. She challenged me, reminding me that I knew who I was and that the definition I had told myself for so many years had just changed. I believed that because I could no longer do the things I’d done before that I’d been stripped of my identity.
I realize now that those beliefs were inherently ableist and spring out of a capitalist society that places enormous value on how we can create income and can produce. I think it’s important that we, as disabled or chronically ill people (and even beyond that, as a society as a whole), redefine what it means to be productive. What are other ways — aside from just working a traditional job — that we as disabled people are productive? How can we shift the way we measure our worth from what we do to who we are?
We are so much more than simply what we produce or do or check off our list of tasks. Productivity can be more than what we create for our employers or how many chores we accomplish on a given day.
As I questioned my identity, my therapist kept asking me: What are my values? For me, many of my values are around family, community, creativity, and self-care. Knowing these values I’ve been able to consider, then, what makes a day ‘productive’ for me personally.
Instead of checking my productivity against capitalist ideals, I can now check my productivity on any given day against my own values.
- Did I spend time with my teen, be that having a conversation over dinner or reading a book together?
- Did I connect with my community by having a video chat with a friend or writing a letter to my prison pen pal?
- Did I engage my creativity by doing some painting, or by scrolling Pinterest for inspiration?
- Did I rest, nourish my body, and listen to what I needed both physically and emotionally?
If I’ve done any of these things in a day then I’ve been productive.
While there’s worth in getting the things done, and that’s important and in many cases necessary, shifting our attention and focusing on our values will help us reframe productivity in a way that is more inclusive (and in my opinion) healthier for all of us.
We are so much more than the time card punched, the dishes done, the to-do list checked off. We are friends, parents, children, siblings, lovers, partners, artists, musicians, gamers, and so much more. Most of all, we are individuals, living in these bodies that need our care and grace.
So what do I do? Well, yes, I’m a part-time writer and teacher, but perhaps more important than what I do is how I try to live each day aligned with my values and need to take care of myself. To me, that is productivity.